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Me Write Funny One Day Part II: Building Funny Into Your Novel

In Part I we discussed that smorgasbord of giggle-busters: one-liners, including how they are great for adding a touch of little levity to scenes or keeping the guffaws rolling, but, much like Tribbles, can easily end up being too much of a good thing. That’s because focusing too much on the one-liners means you are likely selling character development and plot short. But, you ask (hopefully in your best outrageous French accent), how do we get beyond the one-liners? That is the topic of today’s post: The House that Funny Built.

 

bounce-house-550x671What’s so funny about a house?

Well, nothing, unless you BUILD it funny. A house built with straight walls, flat floors and ordinary right angles as far as the eye can see will not be funny. But give those floors a wobble and those walls a tilt, and your guests will be smiling all through the tour. It’s the same for humorous fiction. One-liners are funny, but in the house that is your novel, they are nothing more than the interior decorating. For true humorous fiction, the jokes must be built into the very structure of the novel from the ground up.

 

The Foundation

The foundation of your house, the thing everything else will be built on top of, is its premise. For humorous fiction, your premise is like the lead in to a good joke: “A giraffe, a camel and a naked mole rat walk into a bar…” It will probably sound inherently ridiculous, and it will definitely make the reader eager to hear the rest of the joke. In Kibble Talk, an enormous Great Dane wants desperately to be a teeny tiny lap dog. In Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series, a kindergartener dispenses wisdom. For Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a hapless Englishman travels outer space with nothing but a towel and an eccentric digital travel guide. In A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, a brilliant but utterly slovenly and rude young man expects the world to take him seriously.

 

The Walls

Next come the walls, which in our funny house are a book’s characters. With one important exception, straight, upright walls aren’t as funny as ones that hang at odd angles or veer off in unexpected directions. My protagonist Tawny isflat,1000x1000,075,f generally a rule follower, but she is also unable to resist a dare, which sends her into the oddest adventure (so far) of her young life. Her best friend Jenny is a brilliant schemer, but she never stops to think of the effect her schemes have on others, a fact which invariably ends up being the fatal flaw in her plan, the wobble in her wall. Throw in an all-knowing dog and some parents who take their hobbies way too seriously, and your fun house will be ever-teetering on the brink of hilarious disaster. At that point, even straight walls will look funny, and that is the exception I mentioned earlier. Including a few straight-laced characters can be invaluable to highlighting just how off-kilter the rest of your characters really are.

 

The Rooms

Continuing with this metaphor (cause we’re pretty much stuck with it now!), the chapters of your book are the rooms of your funny house. It’s pretty straightforward, really. Each room has some number of walls (which we already know are the characters). The best funny of all happens at the point where those walls meet up (e.g., the characters interact), with each trying to convince the other that they alone are plumbed straight and true.3674bf48b1573dc7618ad2f52a411883

But don’t’ forget that each room has a floor too, which is like a mini foundation. That’s right, each chapter is based on its own joke. It’s hard to give a meaningful example of this without reprinting an entire chapter here, but pretty much all of my chapters begin with a funny premise—what the lunch lady is serving that day, what it’s like to spend an entire school day filling out standardized tests, what pet Dinky can’t recognize by smell at the Peet-R-My-Kidz Superstore. By the end of that chapter, I’ve returned to that joke and given it a brand new punchline that is only funny because of what we learned by reading that chapter. Barbara Parks uses this exact same tactic in her Junie B. Jones books. An example I love is Junie B.’s excitement and pride over being allowed to play with a spatula—because she is mature enough to do that. By the end of that chapter, her spatula has been taken away because, she admits to the reader (and we have seen for ourselves), she is not mature enough to play with a spatula.

 

 The Doorways

Bear with me here. You know how when you’re in an actual fun house and you think you know where you are and then suddenly you walk through an opening or look through an interior window and see something you saw several rooms ago? It’s jarring, but also delightful. Recurring jokes and character quirks work this way, and as long as you don’t overdo them, your readers will love you for them. For example, Dinky, being an all-knowing dog, is always referring to things that most 10 year olds will not understand, like protoplasm or the Unknown-9Bay of Pigs or deconstructivist art. Each time he does this, he answers the kids confused looks with an offhand, “Oh, look it up,” and the story moves on. In Dog Goner, a character insists he knows Jenny’s name, but still gets it wrong every time. (And it’s not until book 3 that we find out why.)

Why are these seemingly dumb, simple character quirks so powerful? Each time you give the reader another glimpse of these ‘ticks’ in your characters’ personalities, you are reinforcing for the reader the sense that she knows the character so intimately she can predict something ridiculous the character will do or say. In other words, you are creating inside jokes between your characters and your readers, and only true friends share inside jokes.

 

The Roof

The roof of your house, like a capstone, is its conclusion. The roof finishes what the foundation started. For humorous fiction, as we’ve already discussed, that foundation is the lead in to a joke. This means that the roof is the punchline to the greatest joke of all in your book—it’s premise. And while that may seem easy, it is by far the hardest part of any work of humorous fiction. Any fool can pour a wobbly foundation and put up some crooked walls, but only the most gifted carpenter can get a roof over it that will actually fuse that mess together into one structurally strong piece. And you can’t just have an ordinary old, gray-shingled predictable roof either. Your roof must complete the premise joke while offering its own surprises, such as being touching or mind-bending or shocking. If your original premise is ridiculous enough, you won’t be able to put an ordinary roof on it anyway. Plus, your reader will want to get to the end just to see if it’s evePerspective-illusion-roomn possible to slap a roof onto the literary Escher house you’ve built. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide, the answer to the joke is both funny (42) and mind-bending (planet Earth was just an experiment run by higher beings in the form of laboratory mice). At the end of each of her books, Junie B. Jones ends up giving us some actual wisdom after all—wisdom we’ve known all along, but hadn’t realized until it was shown to us by a kindergartner. At the conclusion of Kibble Talk…. haha, as if I’m gonna tell you!

Final pic Building Funny house

So roll up your sleeves!   

Get to work on the funhouse that is your humorous fiction novel, but first make sure your glasses aren’t on too straight, your ruler has a bend in it, and the glass in your level is cracked. Your readers, young and old, will want to lose themselves in the new, the quirky, and the unpredictable, and will delight in visiting again and again!

But before you do, please leave me a comment!  


KT front cover 2014 with gold award Dog Goner CynthiaPort




Making Hard Choices

My name is Daniel Kenney, I write books for kids, and this is my first post for Emblazoners, this awesome group of writers I’ve been so fortunate to recently join.

Since I started publishing kid’s books last September, this is as good a time as any to share with you what I’ve learned over the last year. But before I share with you what I’ve learned, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve done.

Since last September, I have published eleven books for kids. That’s right. ELEVEN. Here they are (just to give you an idea of the kinds of stuff I write)

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For some writers, this isn’t that much…but for many, eleven is a lot.  And so far, things have gone really well. My books mostly sell, I’m able to make extra money for our family and everything is hunky dory…right?

Well, not exactly. Let me tell you a little more about myself and then you’ll see why. Along with writing kids books, I am a stay at home dad of eight. That’s right. EIGHT. I have eight crazy, loud, and mostly fun kids.

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These may not be my actual kids but this is a fairly close approximation of what our house looks like on a daily basis.

You see, my wife works outside the home. I take care of the kids, get them to school, bus them from practice to practice, clean the house, cook the meals. You get the deal. And inevitably, whenever I post a new book on Facebook I get some comment like….”Dan, how on earth do you get so much done AND be a stay at home dad of EIGHT KIDS?”

For awhile you can delude yourself into thinking that you’re some kind of super genius wonderkind. Or, at least that’s what I did…at least a little. But that’s not the truth. The truth is something that became very apparent in the last month. The truth is…the reason I’ve been able to get so much writing and publishing done over the last year is because I just haven’t done a very good job at doing the DAD stuff.

Now, before you go with the whole “Don’t be too hard on yourself” I’ll just say up front that I’m not being too hard on myself. The truth is, I am not a person who can do everything. I am not a person who can survive on 4 hours of sleep. I’m not particularly good at getting lots of different things done and doing them quickly. So for me to pull off what I’ve pulled off over the last year has meant that I have had to take valuable DAD time to be a writer.

So what does this have to do with writing and why am I blogging about this? Very simply because I’m also not one of those people who believes you can really have it all. Choices must be made. Time has to be carved out of something else. Something will suffer. And, each of us has to decide what we are willing to let suffer. For me, the path I took over the last year is not particularly sustainable for me. So I need to find a new path that WILL be sustainable…for me…and my wife…and our kids. Our family. Long term, this whole writing thing can’t be just about me. It’s got to work for us.

So, in year TWO of this publishing journey, I’ll be trying to carve out a new path, one that lends itself to a healthier and happier path for my entire family. For example, as I write this blog, I’m in the lobby of a gym while my 2 youngest are in the daycare twenty feet away. I’m using my workout time to write this blog post. Then, I’ve got to grab the kids, get an electronic game fixed, bake a cake, feed the boys lunch, get them down for lunch, clean the house, pick up the kids from school, drive one daughter to soccer, take my son and two friends swimming for my son’s birthday (which by the way is today, HAPPY TENTH BIRTHDAY BRENDAN!), then I’ve got to race them home, cook them dinner, have a party, get the friends home, make sure everybody’s done homework., pray our family rosary and….well, you get the point. THAT…that truly is my life and at least for awhile longer, the writing will have to fit into my life…as opposed to my life fitting into my writing.

It’s so great to be a part of this community and a pleasure to get to know you all.  Happy Writing!  Daniel

Daniel Kenney is the author of the popular THE MATH INSPECTORS series along with the hilarious graphic novel, THE BIG LIFE OF REMI MULDOON. He and his wife Teresa live in tropical Omaha, Nebraska where they raise eight children, one gecko, and two rather unhappy toads. Find out more at www.DanielKenney.com or see all of his books by searching for Daniel Kenney on Amazon.com.
photo credit: alternatehistory.com

Writing with an Accent

“…leastways, so dey’s ‘spec. De fambly foun’ it out, ’bout half an hour ago–maybe a little mo’–en’ I tell you dey warn’t no time los’. Sich another hurryin’ up guns en hosses you never see!”

photo credit: sheknows.com
photo credit: sheknows.com

Say what?!

 

That’s a little citation from page 127 of my fancy hardbound edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, but this passage illustrates one of the reasons I had a hard time teaching the book to my high school freshmen: Mark Twain spelled out the dialect/accent very specifically. So specifically that some of the kids might as well have been reading Greek.

The problem with writing with an accent is that it becomes another language, and the reader is forced to spend mental energy deciphering the phonemes instead of figuring out the story.

We can’t do this to our readers! Especially our tweens!

It slows down the whole process, and it doesn’t really help in the characterization or give the story that much more of an ethnic flair. The tradeoff isn’t worth it in lost readership of people who just give up and grab an easier book.

But my character is Scottish/German/French!

Yeah, I get it. We don’t have to spell it out. Literally.

Now, I am not pretending to improve upon Mark Twain, but let’s use that citation above as an example. We already know the character is a slave from the deep South. That alone tells us there’s an accent, and the reader can use imagination to fill in many of the details. What if, instead of spelling everything out, we made it a little easier…

“…leastways, so they ‘spect. The family found it out, ’bout half an hour ago, maybe a little more–an’ I tell you, there weren’t no time lost! Such another hurryin’ up guns an’ horses you never see!”

It still has a flavor of accent, but it’s easy enough to interpret that the average tween reader won’t stumble. It allows a blurry feeling in the diction without making the reader cross-eyed.

Another common culprit for over-spelling accents and dialects is the realm of the Celtic. Anything Irish or Scottish becomes completely unintelligible when spelled out. It’s bad enough to hear it spoken live!
Instead of…

photo credit: alternatehistory.com
photo credit: alternatehistory.com

“Men are bu’ bairns a’ th’ best, an’ need close watchin’ e’er.
Andra’s nae be’er than th’ res’, as of’n I discuvver.”

…just keep it simple.

“Men are but bairns at the best, and need close watchin’ ever.
Andra’s nae better than the rest, as often I discover.”

We love to listen to accents. We love to have characters from interesting places. We love to see a character’s personality through his dialog. But we need to remember that our younger readers will never get that far if they are tripping over apostrophes and bizarre spellings. Have mercy. If someone can’t read it aloud cold without squinting, it’s too much. Take it down a notch and let the comprehension in. If we drop enough clues early on as to what overall accent we’re using, the reader will be able to adapt the pronunciation instinctively without turning it into a linguistic notation nightmare. Then our young readers can dive into the world we’ve created on the pages and live there like a native.

What’s the craziest spelled-out accent you’ve ever seen? How long did it take you to figure out what the author was saying?

Powering through Discouragement

Ever had those moments were you want to simply throw your hands up in the air and shout, “Why am I doing this? It doesn’t make a difference!” Well, I have. I’ve noticed it in many aspects of my life over the years. Looking back, I can see that some of those times have been pretty silly. Like, when I used to play videogames. NES_controllerI remember the days of Nintendo, when if you died, you started over at the beginning and the controller-throwing rage that those moments induced. There was the time when I was told in school that I couldn’t music-note-clip-art-music-notes-clip-art_jpgsing and for three years I gave up completely before involving myself in community theatre and starting over again. Silly examples, I know, but those stand out to me as times in my childhood when I came close to giving up on something.

As I’ve grown older, my issues and insecurities have changed. For example, I have always struggled with weight. dietMy size tends to yo-yo depending on my diet and exercise. I’ll just tell you now, for a dieter, there is nothing worse than reaching (and in many case surpassing) your pre-diet condition due to a brief indulgence of binge eating. What about seeing your hard-earned money disappear after a single high-end purchase that you later discover you didn’t want or need? I am ashamed to say that due to poor risk-analysis skills, that has happened to me on a number of occasions.

So, you are probably asking yourselves “Why is he bringing up all of these depressing issues?”. Well, the answer to that is because I am seeing the same thing now with my writing. I can still remember the emotional high I was on after finishing my first book. I recall the giddy excitement I felt the moment a publisher answered my query letter, expressing an interest in my manuscript. What wasn’t to be excited authorabout? I was going to be a published author! I’d make a quick million bucks, retire from my job, and write for fun, just because that was what I loved to do! Of course, now that I am about to publish my fourth and fifth books, I can see how unrealistic my expectations really were.

I have since parted ways with my publisher and attempted to go into business for myself and I have discovered a great deal of discouraging factors that I wasn’t prepared to deal with:

  • Getting lost in the mass of indie authors
  • Writer’s Block
  • Marketing Fails
  • Low Sales
  • Agent and Publisher Rejection
  • Poor Reviews
  • Lack of Time

I am sure I could go on, but I believe that I have made my point. Unfortunately, I have seen a few authors, authors that I respect and admire, fold to these pressures and give in to the discouragement. More than once I have heard phrases like “I am done” and “It just isn’t worth it”. Although I am confident they will work their way through the slump, I am saddened to see them disheartened, temporary though it ffi-the-end-nesmay be. So, after a particularly difficult stretch, I began to think to myself. Even as a kid, after I finished screaming at the T.V. and stepped away for a few minutes, I could pick up the controller, press start one more time, and try once again…and eventually I would finish the game.

If I once found myself motivated by a pixelated, 30 second ending to a game, I think it is time to ask myself about my current motivators. To better my singing, I tried out for musicals. At first, I struggled quite a bit (I still remember trying out for Wizard of Oz and butchering ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ in front of a whole room of people). Eventually, though, I started taking choir classes and vocal lessons and continued to improve. Now I find myself looking for opportunities to sing instead of shying away from it. For weight Spudmanmanagement, I sign up for a series of races and triathlons every year. This forces me to stay active, so I don’t walk into the race unprepared.

So…what can I use as motivators for writing? Reviews? Well, they are a fun motivator, but I learned early on that relying on reviews is only temporarily satisfying. When they stop come in or are negative in nature, a review can have the opposite effect. Money? Sure, money is a motivator for lots of things, but…I don’t make a lot of money from writing. I haven’t found the time/resources for decent marketing and my reader base is still rather small (though extremely loyal). So, probably not (at least…not yet).

Well, what then? If I am not making money from it and reviews (or lack thereof) are not consistent…why keep writing? One of the answers came to me not too long ago. When I walked in the door from work and my kids came in to greet me, one of my twins pulled me aside and said, “Hey, Dad, this is where I’m at in twinsRagesong.” It was completely awesome! It made me realize that as much as I enjoy writing for the masses, my true love is writing for my children. Since then moment, I have caught them reading over my shoulder, pestering me for updates, and begging to be allowed to read the next story early…and I love it! So, this has become my writing goal. If I can keep my children excited for what comes next in my stories, then I can make it through the discouraging moments.

Most of the time, I chug through life on a pretty decent track, but every once in a while I catch myself experiencing one of those deep dips in the road. That’s where I need to take a moment to reflect. Usually if I take the time, I can figure a way to snap myself out of it.  So, my friends, best of luck working through your own discouraging moments!  I’d love to read about your methods for overcoming the slumps in the comments!

Thanks for reading!
J.R. Simmons (Author of the Ragesong Saga)

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Blurb Blinging 101…

blingBlurbs. Stop groaning. You know you need one to help promote and market your book. And if you do up a blurb correctly, have an eye-catching cover, and wrote a great story, then you’ve done your job. The blurb is one of the most important marketing tools in getting your book ready for publication. In fact, you’ve already got a version of your blurb done—the synopsis in your query letter is essentially the same thing as a blurb. Here again, though, there are some significant differences. With a query letter, you’re relating the entire plot. With a blurb, you want to entice the reader—to get them engaged with your story so they can come along as you unravel the plot for them. So here again—while the forms look very similar, their purpose is quite different.

Here’s a surefire method to develop a quick, cohesive blurb. THINK THREE PARAGRAPHS. In the FIRST paragraph, introduce your main character. Now in the SECOND paragraph, introduce your secondary character— a BFF, love interest or antagonist—and the conflict. Remember, the conflict is what drives your plot.

Then in the THIRD paragraph, you bring it all together. This is where you pose a question to the reader—maybe not a straight out QUESTION but a rhetorical one. You want to give the reader a sense of urgency regarding the plot—what will happen if the characters’ attempt to resolve the plot fails. In other words, what the stakes are.

The blurb in its entirety tells its own little story—and that’s what keeps people buying and reading this book. You want to set up the protagonist, the conflict, the obstacles to resolving that conflict and to give the reader a sense of the risks involved in failure. What you’ve done is to create a microcosm—a tiny example of what your book—the macrocosm—is.

Writing a successful blurb is a test of any writer’s skills. It’s darn hard to filter down sixty thousand words into five hundred. But this is a skill a successful writer must learn to do. Throughout your career, whether this is your lone book or the first of hundreds, whether you stay in independent publishing or whether you move on to the Big Six, you MUST LEARN to write effective taglines and blurbs that work. That sell. Your. Book.

Below is the blurb to the prequel of my time travel series, Legend of the Timekeepers, just re-released on August 1st through Mirror World Publishing. Although I didn’t use three paragraphs, I used all the information stated above. Let me know what you think:

Lilith was a young girl with dreams and a family before the final destruction of Atlantis shattered those dreams and tore her family apart. Now refugees, Lilith and her father make their home in the Black Land. This strange, new country has no place in Lilith’s heart until a beloved high priestess introduces Lilith to her life purpose—to be a Timekeeper and keep time safe.

Summoned through the seventh arch of Atlantis by the Children of the Law of One, Lilith and her newfound friends are sent into Atlantis’s past, and given a task that will ultimately test their courage and try their faith in each other. Can the Timekeepers stop the dark magus Belial before he changes the seers’ prophecy? If they fail, then their future and the earth’s fate will be altered forever.

Intriguing? I hope so! If you’re an author how do you go about creating blurbs? And if legendofthetimekeepers-200you’re a reader, what blurbs have caused you to make that book purchase? Love to hear your comments! Cheers!

Sharon Ledwith is the author of the middle-grade/YA time travel series, THE LAST TIMEKEEPERS, and is represented by Walden House (Books & Stuff) for her teen psychic series, MYSTERIOUS TALES FROM FAIRY FALLS. When not writing, researching, or revising, she enjoys reading, exercise, and anything arcane. Sharon lives a serene, yet busy life in a tourist region of Ontario, Canada, with her hubby, one spoiled yellow Labrador and a moody calico cat.

Learn more about Sharon Ledwith on her WEBSITE and BLOG. Look up her AMAZON AUTHOR page for a list of current books. Stay connected on FACEBOOK, TWITTER, GOOGLE+, TUMBLR, and GOODREADS. Check out THE LAST TIMEKEEPERS TIME TRAVEL SERIES Facebook page.